Don’t let Pumpkin have all the fun – Butternut Squash Spice Cake

It’s that special time of year when everything turns pumpkin.  Pumpkin spice coffee, cake muffins, cookies, pumpkin beer, pumpkin creamer, pumpkin pumpkin PUMPKIN.  Don’t get me wrong – I love pumpkin.  I love this time of year where everything is warmly spiced and pairs nicely with a warm cider.  It’s the time of year when we here in Central Texas might actually get to turn our air conditioners off and maybe possibly wear jeans all day without sweating.  It hasn’t happened yet, the current forecast is still containing the words “heat index,” but I have faith that autumn will soon be here.  I decided to do my darndest to lure it in with some delicious butternut squash spice muffins.

Here’s a concept that seems to have drifted past many:  pumpkin is not the only squash available at this time of year!  Fall is squash time.  And many of these squashes can be substituted for pumpkin with no difference in flavor or texture.  In fact, often times the cans of pumpkin you purchase at the grocery actually aren’t 100% pumpkin, they are a mixture of other winter squashes.  The beauty of butternut squash is that it’s easier to cook than pumpkin, cooks faster, and tastes pretty much exactly the same.  When it appeared in the box, I decided it was time to make some cake.

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This recipe was originally a pumpkin cake, and you can definitely substitute pumpkin in for the squash.  I’ll share a secret with you:  this is the #1 most versatile recipe in my repertoire.  Bake it in a loaf, you have bread.  Toss in a handful of chocolate chips, you have chocolate-spice bread.  Bake it muffin tins, you’ve got muffins.  Top those muffins with a cream cheese frosting and you’ve got a cupcake.  Bake it in layers and frost them with cream cheese frosting, you’ve got a layer cake that will beat any white cake with buttercream.  It can be anything, it can be everything.

Butternut Squash Spice Cake

Yield two 9″ cake layers or about 30 muffins/cupcakes

1 large butternut squash (or 1 15 oz can pumpkin)

1 c vegetable oil

2/3 c water

3 c sugar

4 eggs

3 1/2 c all purpose flour

2 t baking soda

1 1/2 t salt

1 T cinnamon

1 T nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Slice the butternut squash in half and scoop out the seeds.  Place the squash cut side down in a baking pan or rimmed baking sheet.  Place the pan in the oven and pour about 1/4 inch of water into the bottom of the pan.  Roast the squash for 30-45 minutes or until a fork easily pierces the skin.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Scrape the squash out of the skin and puree in a food processor until it is very smooth.  Set aside until ready to proceed with the cake.  This step can be done a couple days in advance, or omitted if using canned pumpkin.

To prepare the batter:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 pound of pureed butternut squash (or 1 can of pumpkin puree) with vegetable oil, water, and sugar.  Mix to combine, then add the eggs one at a time, combining after each addition.  Sift in all of the flour, soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Mix until just combined.  Scoop into your chosen greased pan or muffin tins and bake until a toothpick comes out clean.  For muffins, this will take about 17 minutes, for cake layers, about 20-30 minutes.  If baking in a loaf pan, allow between 45-60 minutes for baking.

Becoming and Italian Grandmother: Squid Ink Noodles with Eggplant and Tomatoes

If I had known that putting a bowl of squid ink noodles in front of my toddler was going to result in that kid slurping down the noodles at record pace, I might have introduced them a year ago.  As it stands, this was my first time using squid ink noodles.  It seemed like a box that needed to be checked in order to become an Italian Grandmother.  I did not make the noodles myself because I didn’t want to go through the trouble of trying to track down the ink when prepared squid ink noodles were available at Central Market, our local fancy grocery store.  If you’re a little intimidated by the idea of squid ink, know this:  it’s just there for the color.  A little ink goes a long way, and it does next to nothing in terms of influencing the taste or texture of the noodles.

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Squid Ink Noodles with Eggplant and Tomatoes

Yield 3 servings

8 oz squid ink fettuccine or similar pasta

1 small onion, diced fine

Olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 bell pepper, diced fine

1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2″ cubes

1 14 oz can diced fire roasted tomatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

Freshly shaved Parmesan or Peccorino

Cook the noodles in salted water according to package directions.  Meanwhile, prepare the sauce.

In a large skillet, saute the onion in olive oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent and softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and bell pepper and saute until the pepper is softened, 3-5 minutes.  Add the eggplant and continue to saute until the eggplant softens and begins to release it’s juice, about 5 minutes.  Add the tomatoes with juice and continue cooking until the juice begins to reduce and the sauce becomes fragrant.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Add the drained noodles and cook briefly so that the sauce coats the noodles and the noodles absorb any remaining tomato juice.  Serve warm topped with shaved Parmesan or Peccorino.

Bacon Cheddar Spaghetti Squash

What is better than taking a healthy vegetable and turning it into a delicious, artery-clogging bacon fest?  Not much!  That’s why I love this use of spaghetti squash.  You get to convince yourself you’re doing good while eating cheese and bacon.

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If you’ve never worked with spaghetti squash, don’t be intimidated.  It is very easy to cook and yields a squash product that is close enough to spaghetti to successfully fool my toddler.

Bacon Cheddar Spaghetti Squash

1 large spaghetti squash

6 slices of bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled

6 oz cheddar cheese, shredded or diced

Salt and pepper to taste

Begin by preparing the spaghetti squash.  Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds.  Then lay the squash cut-side down in a large dutch oven or saucepan.  Add enough water to reach about 1/2 an inch up the squash and simmer over medium-high heat until the squash is very tender – about 30 minutes.  Add more water if the pan begins to go dry.  You will know the squash is tender when you scrape the flesh with a fork and it easily releases the meat of the squash in spaghetti-like strands.

Drain the water from the pan.  Scrape the flesh of the squash into the pan and continue to cook it over medium heat until any water left in the squash has evaporated.  Add the bacon and cheddar and cook, stirring frequently, until the cheese is melted.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Mint Chocolate Chip Scones

This was a happy accident recipe.  I had set some mint to steep in some cream to make some mint chocolate chip ice cream.  Then…well, I got lazy.  I left it in the fridge for a day or so and decided I didn’t have enough eggs to spare to make ice cream base and my ice cream machine wasn’t frozen and I really didn’t want to stir that custard…and so on and so forth.  In the end, I was left with some minty cream and no plan.  On a whim, I decided to use the minted cream in some cream scones.  The result was delicious.  The mint is light and not overpowering, the scones are fluffy and fantastic.  I will definitely be working this recipe into my regular scone rotation during mint season.

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Mint Chocolate Chip Scones

Yields 12 good sized scones

1 c heavy cream

3-4 big sprigs of mint

3 c AP flour

2 1/2 t baking powder

1/2 t salt

3/4 c cold butter, cut into small cubes

1/3 c honey

1 c chocolate chips

At least a day in advance, pour the cream into a bowl with the mint sprigs.  Mix the sprigs, bruising them with the back of a wooden spoon so they release their oil and flavor.  Refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days.

When ready to bake scones, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

The best tool for this job is a food processor.  It will yield the lightest, fluffiest scones.  Barring that, use a little elbow grease.  Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Strain the mint out of the cream and combine the cream and honey.  Add the cream mixture to the butter mixture and mix until just combined.  Fold in the chocolate chips

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Gently pat the dough into a cohesive disk about 10″ in diameter, patting in chocolate chips that might not have been completely incorporated.  The less you work the dough, the better, overworked dough will lead to flat, heavy scones.  Cut the circle into 12 equal pieces.  Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet.  Bake 20-25 minutes or until the bottoms are starting to brown.

Deep Dish Double-Crust Pizza

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This beauty has been a favorite in our house for a while now.  Like any pizza, it’s so forgiving and willing to absorb any random things you have hanging out in the fridge.  This iteration took care of about 4 bell peppers and an onion, along with some other random meats and vegetables.  The key is the garlic.  Do whatever you want to the rest of the pizza, don’t skip the garlic.

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Deep Dish Double-Crust Pizza

Yields 1 12″ deep dish pizza, enough for about 6 people.

For the dough:

1 1/2 c warm water

1 package active dry yeast

1 t sugar

3 1/2 c flour

1/2 c cornmeal

1/4 c olive oil

1 t kosher salt

Combine the water, yeast, and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Set side until the yeast begins to froth, about 5 minutes.  With the dough hook attachment set at low speed, slowly begin incorporating the flour, cornmeal, olive oil, and salt.  Continue kneading until the dough is cohesive but still tacky, about 5 minutes.  Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  Punch down the dough.  Cut about 1/3 of the dough off and set aside.  Proceed with the pizza as follows.

For the pizza:

Dough from previous recipe

2 t butter

2 c prepared pizza or marinara sauce, divided

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb mozzarella, shredded

Other pizza items of your choosing – pepperoni, diced peppers, sliced onions, sausage, whatever

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Melt the butter briefly in a 12″ cast iron skillet and swirl around.  Lay the larger piece of dough (about 2/3 of the total dough) in the bottom of the skillet.  Gently press the dough out to cover the bottom and sides of the skillet.  If it fights back or slides back with the butter, just let it sit for a minute or two and try again.  Once you have the dough approximately how you’d like it, let it rest for about 5 minutes.

Layer 1 c of the marinara sauce on top of the dough.  Sprinkle on the minced garlic and approximately half of the shredded mozzarella cheese.  Add your other pizza toppings then top with the remaining mozzarella and 1/2 a cup of the marinara.

Press the remaining 1/3 of the dough into a circle approximately the size of the top of the pizza.  Lay the dough over the top of the pizza, pinching the top and bottom pieces of dough together as you go.  Top with the remaining 1/2 c of marinara.

Bake at 425 for 30 minutes or until the entire top layer of dough is cooked through.  Let sit for about 5 minutes before cutting.

Oodles of Zoodles

I bought myself a new kitchen tool, a mandolin, and put it to use right away with our newest squash use – Zoodles!

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Zucchini noodles, or “Zoodles,” aren’t a new thing, and they’re certainly not difficult.  All you do is slice zucchini on your thinnest julienne setting on a mandolin.  Some recipes recommend using them raw, but I cooked these.  After I had sliced all the squash, about 6 small zucchini and yellow squash, I heated a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and sauteed the noodles until they were tender, about 10 minutes.  From there, I added prepared marinara sauce, meatballs I had frozen previously, and parm.  The whole meal came together in the same amount of time as a normal spaghetti meal.  Yes, it was less than gourmet, but the zoodles and meatballs meal was a hit.  The zucchini noodles take on a similar texture to al dente pasta, but with significantly fewer calories and substantially more healthy stuff.  I recommend this technique should you find yourself in possession of a mandolin, a few minutes, and an abundance of summer squashes.

Roast Vegetable And Goat Cheese Bread

I’m totally on a bread baking kick right now.  I’ve been teaching my 3 year old how to bake bread and it’s such a fun thing to do together.  She gets to add all the ingredients, punch down the dough, and I even let her cut slits into the top of last loaves.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be open about letting my kid play with knives, but she’s got mad skills.

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In any case, I found a recipe similar to this in myCook Italy book.  But the book in the recipe didn’t quit suit my needs, so I took the concept and branched out on my own.  Learn from my mistakes – this recipe will make a lot of bread!  I made one enormous loaf, but it would be much smarter to divide it into two loaves and share or freeze one of the finished loaves.  This bread is really delicious for eating out of hand, adding as a side to a meal, or, with the addition of a little sauce, as a great weeknight meal.  More on that part later.

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Roast Vegetable and Goat Cheese Bread

1 package active dry yeast

3 T sugar

2 1/2 c warm (not hot) water

3 T melted butter

1 T salt

6 1/2 c AP flour

1 large eggplant, cut into 1/4″ slices

2 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4″ slices

2 large bell peppers, cut into 1/2″ slices

3 T olive oil

Salt

2 oz mild goat cheese

Combine the yeast, sugar, and water in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Set aside for about 5 minutes or until the yeast is foamy and bubbling.  Add butter, salt and 3 c of flour.  Begin mixing with the dough hook and continue adding flour, half a cup at a time until a smooth dough begins to form.  Continue kneading for another 7-10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover, and let sit in a warm place for 1-1.5 hours, or until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Combine the eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, olive oil, and salt and spread in an single layer on a large baking sheet.  Roast the vegetables for 20-30 minutes or until they are tender.  Set aside to cool.

When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down and transfer it to a lightly floured surface.  Divide the dough in two.  Roll one half of the dough into a 10″ by 12″ rectangle.  Spread half the vegetables over the dough, then crumble on half the goat cheese.  Starting with one of the more narrow ends, roll the dough up, tucking the ends under the loaf to seal.  Transfer the loaf to a greased baking sheet.  Repeat with the second half of the dough, vegetables, and cheese.

Allow the rolled loaves to rise until nearly doubled, 30-45 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Bake the loaves for 30-40 minutes, until they sound hollow when tapped.

Feel free to adjust the vegetables based on what you have on hand, it’s nice and versatile!

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We served this bread as a great dinner tonight.  I was sort of expecting it to fall flat as an independent meal, but it was great and we all went back for seconds.  A quick homemade tomato sauce turned it into a stromboli/pizza/calzone type things.  Definitely looking forward to the leftovers on this one.

Quick Tomato Sauce

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 small onion, finely diced

drizzle olive oil

2 – 28 oz cans tomato sauce

3 large sprigs basil

1 t sugar

Salt and pepper

In a large dutch oven, saute the garlic and onion in olive oil over medium heat until fragrant.  Reduce the heat to medium low and ad the tomato sauce, basil, sugar, salt and pepper.  Simmer 10-15 minutes.  Remove from the heat, remove the sprigs of basil, and serve.